decentering the performer

I went to the drag show put on by a student group on campus today. It was a decent show, and some of the performers were really engaging. But what really got me thinking about the show wasn’t the performers on stage (a group of drag queens from Pittsburgh), but a group of students (I assume mostly students) dancing in the front rows, feeding off the energy of the performers and their own energy and really creating the show themselves. That is, through their dancing and interacting with each other, they claimed the show was about them, the community, and not about who was on stage. It was sexual, carnival, carnal. They were world-making, as I saw it, and decentering the focus of what a performance.

My friend who sat next to me thought they were egotistical or narcissistic, thinking they deserved attention and weren’t giving their attention to the drag queens on stage. Perhaps there is some truth to this statement. But what I saw was a lot less simple than this. Perhaps there is some narcissism in refusing to give the performer on stage full attention. (But perhaps there is more in checking your phone for texts throughout the show?) But the flow of energy in that room wasn’t solely from the traditional deliverer of a message, but rather from her, from the music, from the crowd, and toward all sectors, between “audience” members, and toward the performer.

This queer participation is also raced: most of the dancers were people of color. Most of the docile bodies were white (my own included). I was reminded of an article I read and discussed in a reading group a few years ago about the male gaze and movies. A professor asked what assumptions about movie-going audiences were being made in the article, and we soon realized that the author was assuming a proper, orderly, middle class, white audience—a receptive audience. What about movie theatres with “disruptive” audiences who talk back to movies? What about drag shows where the audience dances instead of watches in the traditional manner? Who really is the performer and the audience?

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One Response to decentering the performer

  1. Nate says:

    Without an audience, there is no performance. It’s as simple as that. It’s only a matter of degree, then. If an audience is staid, then the performer is more central to the experience of performance. If the audience is more participatory, then of course they become a part of the performance.
    This reminds me of the time I saw Green Day in concert. They selected a member of the mosh pit to come up on stage and to actually play the guitar during their final song. They could not and did not deny the fact that their audience actually made their music.

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